NOTE: This is a guest post from Don Kraus, CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions, a groundbreaking national movement that supports responsible and cooperative U.S. foreign policy.
March 14, 2012 marks an extraordinary moment in world history. This morning, the International Criminal Court (ICC) completed its very first trial, convicting Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of forcing children to serve as soldiers in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 74 million viewers have watched Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video, calling for the arrest and ICC trial of Joseph Kony. But few are aware that Lubanga, a man as despicable as Kony, has laid the groundwork for the kind of trial that Joseph Kony surely deserves.
During the trial, witnesses detailed how Lubanga and his men forced child soldiers to rape, kill and plunder. Commanders abducted children and forced them to commit terrible acts, including killing their parents – acts designed to cut off the abducted children from their families and communities. Witnesses reported that young girls were abducted by Lubanga’s commanders to serve as their ‘wives’ and sexual slaves. Girls who were raped by commanders faced brutal violence, disease, forced pregnancy, and did not receive adequate medical care when needed.
Witness 229, a former child soldier and one of Lubanga’s victims, testified that he was abducted on his way home from school, drugged and forced to travel for days to a military training camp. During training, the children were forced to follow strict disciplinary rules. The witness testified,”Those who did not follow were punished. You would be whipped or put in prison. That’s how things worked.” When given the chance to talk about his time as a UPC soldier, Witness 229 said, “I didn’t enroll of my own volition…I was a schoolchild, I didn’t want to become a soldier.”
This verdict is a landmark moment, not only in the short history of the Court, but in the development of international law as a whole. For the first time in the history of humanity, nations have successfully come together and established a court to try individuals accused of the worst violations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC steps in when national courts are destroyed or unable to handle the case, or are deliberately shielding the accused from justice.
While the development of the Court has been a long and complicated process, today’s verdict represents a ‘coming of age’ moment for the ICC. This lengthy trial has established guidelines for victim participation, proved that the ICC has an effective victim and witness protection scheme and heightened the Court’s legitimacy by showing the dedication to the rights of a defendant to a fair trial. These precedents will ensure a smoother process for future ICC trials. The Hague should be able to quickly arrest, prosecute and, if found guilty, sentence Uganda’s Joseph Kony or Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. If indicted, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or other dictators can expect that justice will not be delayed. Today, it’s Lubanga put behind bars; tomorrow, it will be Kony, Bashir and Assad.
The United States should use this moment to take the time to examine its relationship with the ICC. In a open letter to members of Congress, 12 organizations including Citizens for Global Solutions , Amnesty International USA and United to End Genocide called for the U.S. “to support a continuing, positive U.S. relationship with the Court.” The letter noted that: “The U.S. has long supported accountability for perpetrators of mass atrocities – a conviction that dates back to the Nuremberg trials. However, current U.S. legislation limits U.S. cooperation with and funding for the Court, except for very limited circumstances. As the Court has matured, now is the time for the US to consider an evolution of its relationship with the ICC as well.”
The conviction of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo will never heal families and return to them the lost and broken children who were once the hope of their future and the light of their lives. But this conviction can offer them a small measure of justice. It sends a strong message to dictators and autocrats and would be perpetrators of the world’s worst crimes that their acts will not go unpunished. This is a moment when peace and justice have prevailed – a moment of which we can all feel proud to be part.
Photo by ICC-CPI/Michael Kooren